What more can be said about 2020 C.E.? The chaotic and trying leap year stress-tested America and the University’s crisis infrastructure and leadership. For better and for worse, 2020 disrupted our daily patterns and forced us to reimagine our known world. With this in mind, the Daily Book Review submits two Best of Books lists for consideration. The first list details four books our writers believe to be among best published in 2020. Within this list, you can find this year’s Man Booker Prize winner and Suzanne Collins’s Hunger Games addendum. The second list is more personal. In a year characterized by revisitations, the following eight novels are what found literary homes in our writers’ heads. The selections range from Environmentalist treaties to a stunning novel set in Palestine. Happy reading.
— Elizabeth Yoon, Daily Book Review Editor
Best Books Published in 2020
“Shuggie Bain” by Douglas Stuart
Despite its title, “Shuggie Bain” isn’t really about Shuggie Bain. The eponymous character is present for half of the novel, and takes control of the third-person perspective for a bit, but really the novel is about his mother, Agnes Bain.
An alcoholic raising her three children in Thatcher-era Glasgow, Agnes serves as the fascinating contradiction of this year’s Booker Prize winner — she’s both a protagonist and antagonist, a powerful matriarch and an unstable addict, an inspiring mentor and a neglectful parent. Readers spend most of “Shuggie” absorbing the delicious descriptions of the poor boroughs of Glasgow and rooting for Agnes and her family, only to feel a loss that they just should’ve known was coming. It’s moving and will gut you slowly, and most importantly it asks questions about class, acceptance and accountability.
Not all readers will enjoy “Shuggie Bain”: many would rather not have their day, week or month ruined by the novel’s emotional burden. However, the fact that this disclaimer is even necessary is a testament to why “Shuggie” cannot be omitted from this list.
In a year as gutting as 2020, it’s difficult to be so moved by a book that the events of the pages harrow you more than those outside the cover. To the reader’s delight and despair, “Shuggie” does just this.
— John Decker and Andrew Pluta, Daily Arts Writer and Daily Senior Arts Editor
“A Burning” by Megha Majumdar
My pick from 2020, Megha Majumdar’s debut novel “A Burning,” held me from start to finish. This political novel follows the lives of three characters in contemporary India — a Muslim girl accused of online terrorism, an aggrieved gym teacher and an outcast transgender woman. Majumdar ties these three stories together at a breakneck speed while exposing the hypocrisies of the Indian government and the moral compromises we all make to survive in a cutthroat world.
Majumdar writes with such a compelling urgency that I nearly finished this book in one captivated sitting. Fans of Aravind Adiga and Jhumpa Lahiri will love this debut. Readers interested or familiar with the region of West Bengal, my family’s home turf, will resonate with the setting and characters even further. “A Burning” is a dark but wonderful introduction to the consequences of political extremism and life in India today.
—Trina Pal, Daily Arts Writer
“The Vanishing Half” by Brit Bennett
Amid a year of incredible hardship and pain, books provided a welcome escape for countless quarantiners. “The Vanishing Half” by young author Brit Bennett stands out in particular as both enjoyable and of incredible quality. This multi-generational story begins with identical twins Stella and Desiree, who are desperate to escape their southern, color-obsessed hometown. The sisters take two very different paths: one chooses to pass as white, while the other ultimately returns to the small Black community in which she was raised. The novel tackles the complicated ramifications of Stella and Desiree’s decisions, both for themselves and for their families.
“The Vanishing Half” explores themes of race and racial passing, identity and belonging and sisterhood and family, drawing readers in with thought-provoking storytelling and captivating characters. Bennett’s second novel is a pleasure to read, a rare book that is able to capture deeper truths about the human experience while simultaneously providing being fun and pleasurable reading experience. For these reasons, “The Vanishing Half” is my pick for Best Book of 2020, and it is a novel I would recommend to any reader.
— Emma Doettling, Daily Arts Writer
“The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes” by Suzanne Collins
Tacking a prequel onto a widely-read series ten years after the fact usually isn’t a good idea. In the off-chance that this idea makes it to publication, the work is rarely well done — because, well, why would an author do that? Is there really something new to say? Can’t anything be left up to the imagination?
Like with Margaret Atwood’s “The Testaments” or the endless Harry Potter expansion packs, these add-ons can easily feel lame and money-hungry.
Luckily, Suzanne Collins’s “The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes” does feel like it has something to say.
Ditching Katniss and friends, “The Hunger Games” prequel leans on what Collins has always done best: creating a didactic story that both entertains the reader and examines the realities of regime, power and revolution. Sure, it’s against a fictitious and maybe absurd backdrop, but Collins, in both this prequel and in her original series, is honest in how political change happens and how control concentrates around a sovereign.
Collins isn’t just trying to please old readers — “Songbirds” actually spends very little time in the arena of The Games — rather, she has a genuine idea and a way to say it that doesn’t ruin the fantasy realm that took the world by storm in the early 2010s. It’s worth a read, even if you think you’re above YA Fiction or have never read the original books.
— John Decker, Daily Arts Writer
Best Eight Novels Read in 2020
“Between the World and Me” by Ta-Nehisi Coates
Deceptively short, Ta-Nehisi Coates’s 2015 novel “Between the World and Me” was a mainstay in 2020 Anti-Racist reading recommendations, topping the NYT Bestsellers list last summer. The novel is a culmination of Coates’s lifelong pursuit of a squirming, impossible question, primordial from America’s foundation: What does it mean to be Black in America?
With wit and compassion, Coates lays out what he knows so far. Framed as a letter to his son, Coates allows the reader to shadow him as a child, an adult and as a young, ravenous intellectual at Howard University as he explores the physical and intellectual ramifications and insights integral to the Black experience.
It is at Howard, dubbed the “Mecca” for its nebulous ability to inspire, where readers see Coates first start devouring philosophy and African history. In one section, Coates recounts his attempts to reframe his Black American existence by way of African kings and queens. Coates ultimately finds that Ethiopian queens of old operated within irreconcilably different power structures than those that exist today.
The clarity and nuance regarding race in America make this novel a 2020 coda. Reading “Between the World and Me” allows readers to cut the line and soak up the thoughtful fruits of a lifetime of questions asked and answers tested.
— Elizabeth Yoon, Daily Book Review Editor
“The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society” by Annie Barrows and Mary Ann Shaffer
Written as an epistolary novel composed of letters, telegrams and diary entries, “The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society” was a wonderfully heartening 2020 read, despite having been published twelve years prior. The novel takes place in 1946 London and follows Juliet Ashton, a writer traveling across England promoting her latest book called ‘Izzy Bickerstaff Goes to War,’ a collection of the popular columns she wrote about life during World War II.
During the tour, she receives a letter from Dawsey Adams, a stranger from the island of Guernsey, who immediately intrigues Juliet with tales from his book club, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. Juliet begins to correspond with Dawsey and the other book club members and learns about their experiences of the war. Eager to meet face-to-face and conduct more research about the German occupation of Guernsey, Juliet sets out for the island.
Shaffer’s work of historical fiction incorporates threads of romance and humor that bring life to the characters’ relationships and individual identities. I was immediately enamored with Juliet’s quick wit and Shaffer’s ability to invest the reader in the intersecting lives of numerous characters. The fast pacing maintains the momentum of the story, the quality of which is uplifted even more so by the enchanting and unforgettable book club members.
Beyond the novel’s excellent craft, it was inspiring to witness how the inhabitants of Guernsey healed from dire isolation, relying on books for laughter, light and love: a reflection of where I found myself, reading “Guernsey” to distract from reality and lose myself in a story instead.
— Lilly Pearce, Daily Arts Writer
“As Long As Grass Grows: The Indigenous Fight for Environmental Justice, From Colonization to Standing Rock” by Dina Gilio-Whitaker
Environmental justice (EJ) as a field of study is just a few decades old, but Indigenous tribes of the U.S. have been grappling with EJ for centuries. Activist and journalist Dina Gilio-Whitaker, a member of the Colville Confederated Tribes, brilliantly dissects the history of the EJ movement from an Indigenous lens in her book “As Long As Grass Grows.” With Indigenous activism in the spotlight the last few years, this short but comprehensive book is a must-read for anyone hoping to understand the history and rights of Indigenous tribes.
Gilio-Whitaker introduces readers to multiple facets of Indigenous environmental justice, including chapters titled “Genocide by Any Other Name” and “Food is Medicine, Water is Life.” She details why Indigenous peoples have a unique view of EJ, their complicated history with the movement and why the famous Standing Rock protest was about much more than a pipeline.
“As Long As Grass Grows” is a good complement to other memoirs written by Indigenous authors, notably “Braiding Sweetgrass” by Robin Wall Kimmerer, which provides readers insight into how important the natural world is for Indigenous groups and why their voices are valuable as the EJ movement moves into the mainstream. Indigenous tribes have won recent victories — the Supreme Court granted significant land back to the Muscogee (Creek) Nation Oklahoma this past July, and President Joe Biden selected Rep. Deb Haaland as the first Native American Secretary of the Interior — but much work remains to be done.
Reading “As Long As Grass Grows” is a wonderful and necessary start to anyone remotely interested in not only learning about the history of EJ but how to help the fight as well.
— Trina Pal, Daily Arts Writer
“The Stand” by Stephen King
In the midst of a long and grueling pandemic, it can be comforting — or at least relieving — that our current situation isn’t quite as bad as the pandemic that legendary horror writer Stephen King creates in his very long novel “The Stand.” In King’s imagined universe, a disease has wiped out nearly the entire population of the United States. The country has been split into factions, between a wise old woman from Nebraska and a mysterious man named Randall Flagg.
Although the division between Flagg and the old woman can’t stand as a direct parallel to the current political situation, it does offer a post-pandemic society that is somehow more polarized than our own. In a blend of masterful character development and action-packed adventure, “The Stand” is a page-turner even at its 800-plus page count.
It is, at its core, an epic battle between good and evil complete with a diverse array of characters whose storylines twist around one another and converge in ultimately satisfying ways.
— Emilia Ferrante, Daily Arts Writer
“The Book of X” by Sarah Rose Etter
Sarah Rose Etter’s “The Book of X” follows the life of Cassie, a girl who is born with her stomach twisted in the shape of a knot, a trait passed down from her mother. The novel slips furtively between the realms of realistic fiction and fantasy as Cassie attempts to navigate her way through first loves and friendships while growing up on a meat farm (her father and brother spend their days slicing meat from a literal quarry made of flesh, coal-miner style) and living under the strict expectations of her mother, who is obsessed with cleaning and control. For instance, she forces Cassie to clean the house with lemon peels and eat rocks for lunch instead of sandwiches and cake.
Cassie’s desperate desire to be loved is tested repeatedly by bad men, manipulative doctors and her own family, yet she continues to persist in the face of all this. The novel explores themes of isolation and loneliness, female suffering and hunger in a way that feels viscerally painful, but real.
— Jo Chang, Daily Arts Writer
“Slouching Towards Bethlehem” by Joan Didion
“Slouching Towards Bethlehem” stands on its own as a tour de force in any era, but as a product of the social revolutions of the ’60s, it feels especially poignant in 2020. In the titular essay, Didion writes: “It was not a country in open revolution. It was not a country under enemy siege. It was the United States of America in the cold late spring of 1967, and the market was steady … and it might have been a spring of brave hopes and national promise, but it was not.”
Living in Haight-Ashbury during the summer of love, Didion witnessed protests, social unrest and police brutality. Reading this book in this year when our problems are not merely external but also internal — when intranational divisions feel ever-present, a pandemic has taken many lives and the Capitol has been stormed — it is impossible to not hear the echoes of that older time when “the center was not holding.”
One can’t help but wonder when we may reach the point which Hunter Thompson famously called “the high-water mark — that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back.” Our wave is perhaps very different from that one, but until this year-long wave does break and we can enjoy the beach once more, Didion gives me solace.
“I think we are well advised to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be,” Didion writes in “On Keeping a Notebook,” and I think we are well-advised to listen to her.
— Julian Wray, Daily Arts Writer
“Anxious People” by Fredrik Backman
“Anxious People” isn’t a particularly innovative book. It is fairly average as a piece of art, but it shines in its graceful demonstration of the power of compassion. Here’s the premise: A fleeing bank robber finds herself holding a group of prospective buyers hostage at an apartment viewing. Their collective neuroses bubble up as they are trapped in an apartment together indefinitely.
Though Backman wrote the book before the pandemic, the plot’s relevance today seems a bit on the nose. I imagine many people felt like hostages when whipped coffee and Tiger King got boring and they had no choice but to interact with their families for extended periods of time. Or maybe I’m just projecting — who knows?
Either way, Backman models a way for groups of people to be compassionate with each other even in the face of extreme stress. He makes the case that love is the most effective tool with which to confront a problem, doing so with a light-heartedness that is comforting without obscuring or minimizing reality. “Anxious People” is the perfect counterweight to the messages of despair and hopelessness that have saturated 2020.
— Sejjad Alkhalby, Daily Arts Writer
“A Woman Is No Man” by Etaf Rum
Just from the first sentence, I knew that this book would be more emotional than any other novel I have ever read: “Where I come from, voicelessness is the condition of my gender, as normal as the bosoms on a woman’s chest, as necessary as the next generation growing inside her.”
Immediately, the author forced me to confront oppressive gender roles, to envision the purpose of the book and to fully imagine the emotional turmoil experienced by her characters. I realized the gravity of the title: A woman is indeed not a man.
The book starts with 17-year-old Isra living during the 1990s in occupied Palestine, where many people are displaced in refugee camps. Courtesy of these experiences and her gender, her parents arrange her marriage. She then moves to America and is exposed to a completely different immigrant culture, rife with assimilation. Her story progresses as she grows into womanhood and gives birth to her children, all while enduring abuse by her husband and the neglect of bystanders.
We explore Dia’s story, the 17-year-old daughter of Isra, simultaneously. Her parents passed away when she and her siblings were young, so they were raised by her grandparents. Similar to her mother, at a young age she is introduced to the idea of marriage. Dia rejects the idea wholeheartedly. She sets out on a journey to find the strength to fight the idea of becoming a doting wife.
Through it, she learns of her mother’s character and story. Dia’s story shows us that people can change, and how pride is something real and, at times, very tangible.
This book is so precious to my heart. I think about the themes and character transformations often. I appreciate how it discusses religion and culture separately. I admire how the characters fight for themselves, with themselves, with others around them and, eventually, find liberation and empowerment.
— Zoha Khan, Daily Arts Writer